This is from Tom Athanasiou in, among other places, EcoEquity:

 … we’ve been so long distracted by the hard denialists [those who outright reject climate change and related science – PT] that we’ve missed the parallel danger of a “soft denialism.”
By which I mean the denialism of a world in which, though the dangers of climate change are simply too ridiculous to deny, they still – somehow – are not taken to imply courage, and reckoning, and large-scale mobilization.  

Hard denialists are small in number though loud in voice.  Tom, our most regular commenter on Price Tags, is a hard denialist.
But many of our leaders and elites – say, for instance, the leadership of Port Metro Vancouver – are mainly soft denialists.  They would acknowledge the existence of climate change and the need for response – but they are not prepared to do anything that would cause disruptive change, certainly not in the name of preventing severe outcomes.
Indeed, they actively assist in the expansion of our carbon footprint (Port defends decision on coal shipping – letter to the Sun):

Canada’s port authorities are legislated to facilitate Canada’s trade objectives in a safe and sustainable way that mitigates the impact on the environment and human health, and considers local communities. Expecting ports to decide what gets traded is akin to believing airports should make decisions on immigration. Coal has been safely shipped through the port for decades and continues to be its most heavily-shipped commodity.
– Peter Xotta, Vice- president, Operations and Planning, Port Metro Vancouver

Not our jurisdiction.  Only following our mandate.  Nothing we can do – except  promote and expand our role as carbon facilitators.
The board, I understand, believes it is not their job to take a stand, much less a moral position, on issues like thermal coal and climate change.  But then they, being moral people, must rationalize away their participation in worsening an existential threat for future generations by basically not acknowledging their concurrence, and turning away.
That is soft denialism.


  1. Also applies to individuals. Read Naomi Klein’s interview mentioning soft denial in Macleans yesterday:
    “We focus too much on climate deniers and not enough on the more widespread “soft denial.” How is it possible to know about this crisis, then forget? What is all this aversion about—how can we know something so profoundly disturbing and then behave as if it isn’t happening?”
    For me to ‘get it’ enough to change my behaviours, it took a bike ride to an oasis and a conversation with a date farmer forced to take his family to beg in Marrakech. The rise in global temperatures causing the increasing boundaries of the Sahara, had put him out of business. The farm had been in his family for generations. I had very little excuse for my soft denial – I’d been teaching about greenhouse effect, and non-renewable resource exploitation for decades.

  2. Here’s an interesting take on climate change, and why this enormous challenge has failed to resonate with the majority of people. The premise of the argument is that the way our brains work makes it nearly impossible to attract attention to climate change. A sad but supportable conclusion that is not limited to the issue of climate change.
    The author is George Marshall, a well-connected long-time environmental activist now on a speaking tour to flog his book: “Don’t Even Think About It; Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change”. It’s about the psychology of climate denial – particularly the soft variety.
    A brief précis of the book is here:
    Among other people that have shaped this opinion is Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, whose best-selling book “Thinking Fast and Slow” describes recent research into how our brains select and process information. It’s one of my favourite books of all time. When interviewed by Mr. Marshall on the subject of climate change, Mr. Kahneman is reported to have said to Mr. Marshall: “I am very sorry,” he told me, “but I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change”.
    Amid the gloom, Mr. Marshall suggests ways that those working on climate change could rework their messages to overcome our cognitive biases and insert real concern into the mass dialogue on climate change.

  3. Green house gas emissions are identified as the cause of climate change, melting ice, and rising sea levels. The denial conversation is truly a “dead end conversation”. Human beings have in recent times become dependent and embedded in a technology that produces GHG emissions. In this sense humans have become cyborgs, machine dependent organisms. We cannot imagine how we can change this situation, and so I have I coined the term for this conundrum the “Cyborg Syndrome”. This is the sense of helplessness we all feel as we consider the future, the sense that I being one person cannot fix this no matter how I live my life.
    Since we are unwilling to give up our cyborg lifestyle the only possibility for survival lies in retooling our technology so that it is in balance with the biosphere. This is possible to achieve but it will take organized, focused and concerted effort in all spheres of human endeavour. We should support and encourage the creative, passionate and inventive thinkers among us who have the ability to solve this challenge. Re-tooling technology is the way forward, the only way forward.

  4. I am sorry said the farmer to the horse but I see no other option to move my cart.
    I am sorry said Mr. Ford to the farmer I see no further use for your horse.
    I am sorry said Mr. Tesla to Mr. Ford I see no further use for your combustion engine.
    I am sorry said the inventor of the photon engine to Mr. Tesla I see no further use of your electro motive power.
    I am sorry said the skateboarder to all the others but I see no use for any of your inventions.
    Reasons why we can’t do something are never helpful said the shoemaker.
    The history of humans is the history of inventions. Today’s inventors are highly motivated to invent biosphere neutral technologies. Encourage them, support them, and enable them to invent so that the rest of us can implement needed transformations.

    1. “Too Much Magic”. A book worth reading (if you haven’t already). Looking to pixel moving to ensure our current lifestyles doesn’t cut it for me. We already know as individuals what we need to do, we’re just choosing not to do it – soft denial.

  5. Look no further than bankrupt Europe to see what happens if energy costs are tripled to quintupled. I am all for increased taxes on co2 emissions if other taxes, say GST or income taxes, are lowered.
    Until then taxing co2 is just another grab out of my wallet by ever growing governments. Governments are too big, with too many overpaid employees, for too many, like me, to support an ever rising share of income being given to bureaucrats that waste much of it.
    The climate, btw, has been warming for 10,000+ years even without this many humans. Humans need energy. More here if you want to see a more personal view on energy, incl my live for solar.

    1. This blog topic is not a discussion about the amount of money in your wallet. Nor is it about your opinion on governance issues. Your statement “Humans need energy.” is incorrect at the most fundamental of levels. Humans do not “need energy”; they “use energy” in various forms from various sources in various amounts for various reasons. The production and consumption of energy that results in destruction of the biosphere is the topic of this blog discussion. It cannot be stated with more clarity. I have put forward the thesis that retooling our technology is necessary in order to restore a balance with the biosphere. This is the work of inventors, of brilliant minds, it is work that is informed and driven be humanitarian passion. It has nothing to do with the madness of your argumentative reality Thomas Beyer.

      1. Some things are sheer physics, such as that 8B people eat more than 1B people, or that a kg of gasoline has more energy than a kg of electric battery or that transportation of 1M of goods in the air cost more energy than 1M of goods on the ground. We have a lot of clean technology today such as nuclear power or hydro. Why do we not use more of it ?
        If Obama or all the other green czars really want to change why is the US gasoline tax not $10/gallon ? That would reduce US greenhouse gas emmissions far more than a denial of XL pipeline or shutting down the entire evil tar sands.
        Higher energy costs such as implemented in Europe or in Ontario are another tax, ie another form of socialism really. Having grown up near, and seen the power of big government destroying Eastern Europe for several decades we need to be very suspicious of any form of higher taxation for ” the greater good”.
        I am all for invention of new forms of energy. Perhaps we ought to start in India and China as they use a lot of dirty GHG, a lot more than in Canada.
        I am all for higher taxes on gas, coal, gasoline or on oil based products – by consumers – in exchange for reduction in other taxes. 40-60% of taxes going to various levels of government is excessive in my humble opinion.
        The discussion on taxation levels and global warming and energy taxes is directly related ! Directly. Pretending otherwise is another form of denial.

    2. In BC, the carbon “tax” goes entirely toward reducing personal and income taxes. This is a great model for the rest of Canada. If properly implemented, this can be a benefit to a majority of taxpayers. The only problems I see with the BC model is that the “tax” is not high enough – it is currently only $30/tonne CO2e while it should be well over $100.

  6. Blaming others for our failure to create the necessary environment and societal structures to achieve desired sustainability changes is the most insidious form of denial.
    e.g. I recall discussing recently with a high profile Urbanist in this region who derided Metro Port for their various decisions of late and defining them as UNACCOUNTABLE. And I asked unaccountable to who, which received a perfunctory response “Metro Vancouver of course”. When I observed that to accomplish this desired level of accountability, which is certainly possible, was this Urbanist advocating a Constitutional change of the highest order, requiring the federal and provincial governments to obtain the consent of the majority of Canadians to up-end the very structure of the polity, so that Urbanist’s were central to decision-making?
    While this kind of thinking may be necessary to achieve some of the goals noted in various PriceTag comments, I can’t think of an acceptable argument (although this may be my intellectual failing) to the other Western provinces that those Metro Vancouver politician’s that have an international air or sea port of some kind would have a VETO over Canada’s trade and immigration policy. Of yes, this might also mean that others in Canada might desire a Constitutional change or two of their own, possibly even separation from Canada to avoid those pesky Metro Vancouverites interfering in their democratic choices.
    In sum, this strikes me as the point Peter Xotta is making – change the rules of the game and they will follow the new rules. But let’s be clear for a moment – should Metro Port deliver a decision that falls outside their area of competence (which would be ultra vires to our way of thinking), narrowly defined, we then are on the slippery slope that undermines the foundation of Western civilization that we otherwise know as the “rule of law”.
    I’m sure some out there do not support the current “Social Contract” and I wish you well in causing this to be changed (without violence and broadly consensual) to something you desire, but let’s not “Shoot The Messenger” for our failures to educate and help others to understand what a better path looks like.

  7. Blame and denial does not address the root causes of climate change because emissions are caused by the technology that is deployed. Environmental law, taxation policy, social contracts can all have a positive effect on the uses of technology. However a big problem needs a big solution in this case many solutions leading to the evolution of clean technology in order to reduce or eliminate emissions. Today the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced plans to divest investments in fossil fuels with reinvestments in clean energy. This is very good news and reflective of an emerging investment trend. This does not mean the end for coal or the tar sands, but it is very positive for the inventors and entrepreneurs working to clean-up technologies.

    1. Once you’re rich enough you can afford a clean Tesla and organic, locally grown food. Not everyone is this lucky. Food production is very energy intensive. Higher energy prices lead to far higher food prices at best, starvation at worst.
      Clean energy is great, but it costs far more and as such eating, heating your home and getting around will be far more expensive. It is this “inconvenient truth” often forgotten in the green energy and climate debate.

      1. The production of a Tesla car is an extremely dirty process. Removed from this reality it is a clean beautiful machine. When all the materials that go into a Tesla are mined, refined, processed, cast, machined, dipped, sprayed, poured, annealed, formulated, fabricated, transported, and assembled using clean technologies by humans living clean lives; then and only then will we have a clean Tesla.
        The Tesla tale illustrates a common truth; there are no silver bullets when it comes to reducing atmospheric carbon. It will take inspiration, innovation and sustained effort accompanied by employment and investor profits because that is the way we do things.
        Tesla is emblematic of where we need to go, and perhaps alluring enough to get us there eventually, only time will tell.

    1. Thanks for this link, Kirk.
      I was impressed by the cogency of the guy’s arguements and the work he’d done to show the math behind them (the industry tries hard to keep these kinds of figures obfuscated).
      I’d worked out the flying=soft denial link a long while back, but his determination not to be spending money with an industry that’s acting immorally towards our future, is just as important.

    2. Kirk perfectly demonstrates my assertion regarding blaming others for our failure to create the necessary environment and societal structures to achieve desired sustainability changes is the most insidious form of denial.
      First, Kirk admits that he desperately needs OTHERS to continue flying, and the industry should maintain itself in a sufficiently healthy position as he may have a future need “But, barring a true emergency, I plan to continue boycotting jet travel”. So for others we all should be guilty, but Kirk will not “and I have no regrets about this decision” despite admitting he requires the industry to maintain RESERVE capacity, based on his own self-determined view of an emergency. In the real world, this is the most expensive and carbon-consuming form of capacity i.e. flying around airplanes with empty seats just in case Kirk needs’ one.
      And Kirk emphatically denies he needs aviation.
      More importantly, while Kirk correctly espouses aviation industry statistics and carbon impacts, he makes NO mention whatsoever of transportation system fundamentals regarding what drives this industry known as the “principle of derived demand”. Transportation is simply an end to another high-order outcome, and thus we need to carefully examine what ends does international transportation generate beyond its own internal circumstances. Thus, “jet-setters” are a catalyst for 8% of the world’s economy, and makes social life completely different than just mere two decades ago.
      Does this mean aviation gets free pass – of course not, but my point is about engaging and educating others, rather than pretending about self-imposed limits when Kirk admits to needing aviation reserve capacity in the first place.
      I can only then surmise what Kirk is really advocating for, but unwilling to publicly admit for fear of being called racist, is a complete societal change to eliminate “far-reaching relations between family and friends”, writ large. In Canada, with the vast numbers of immigrants, including my parents, then should Immigration law be changed to expel these folks (and their children I suppose too) and prevent any new immigrants from arriving unless they come on foot? Should Canada turn away all international air visitors that drives good chunk of the BC economy? Should Canada stop transporting by air life-saving, but short-lived isotope-based medicines that could one day save Kirk or his family/friends? Should those Northern communities that are ice-bound in winter starve or lack access to advanced medical services?
      All of these scenarios demand careful attention to the implications of alternative approaches to achieving desired societal change – e.g. we could certainly build all-weather roads into the deep Artic, which would release vast quantities of carbon sunk into the permafrost, but that doesn’t mean a neuro-surgery team is voluntarily moving to Resolute Bay anytime soon for activation few times a month?
      In short, Kirk makes a remarkably superficial argument about the world around us, and even denies his own denial about his need for aviation – how about we move on and discuss how best to encourage and educate others to a better path.

      1. Quite the rant against Kirk, Mr Luigi G (Joe) Sulmona :
        Facilitator at Airports Council International – ACI World
        Principal at Sky Blue Sea Enterprises Ltd.
        Associate Consultant & Management Training Facilitator at International Air Transport Association (IATA)
        when the article was actually written by Barry Saxifrage.
        “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Upton Sinclair.

        1. Penny,
          you indeed correctly identify who I am and my affiliations, and I hide nothing as I use my name in public to advance these views – which of course you cannot say the same as you chose to hide your own advocacy efforts without standing yourself in public.
          As Gordon is well aware, I make no apology for my global professional educational efforts to convince various parties throughout the global transportation industry to change their ways (with some modest success if I say so myself), and I do this through educational best-practices which is entirely the point in my series of posts. Could I do more, yes, and I continue to learn by understanding the perspectives of others, but this also involves challenging the often shallow intellectual positions in many quarters as leaving such errant views standing simply makes the task of education and enlightenment that much harder.
          btw…you must have cut/paste very old CV as my engagements are much broader now, and involves my globally-relevant Doctorate from UBC that is not reflected in your post.
          And of course you refer to my comments as “Rant” (commonly defined as wild and impassioned) that again intends on your part to deny the existence of other valid perspectives and alternative ways forward by using language and nuances which the objective to ridicule the methods of others.
          And to suggest that my salary/wealth drives my agenda, well, this is another form of denial on your part as if you live here, in the most carbon-intensive society on the planet, and lack understanding of the fundamental dependence on the current fossil fuel energy cycle that underpins the B.C./ world economy, you are very much in denial about your own financial circumstances. But of course your obvious intention with your quote was to to discredit my perspective as if your own hands are perfectly clean in someway.
          Interestingly enough, your post only attacks me at a personal level, but makes NO argument whatsoever to counter my views – strikes me that Shooting the Messenger is an always useful response from those lacking an intellectual counter-argument.
          I have many failings, but never lack of conviction to both learn from others and advance that learning to others – but it is always necessary to understand/challenge the source of learning, which unfortunately does not apply to you from your post!

        1. Hmm.. I wonder if if this is libel since it is an inaccurate statement about me in a public forum.
          “In short, Kirk makes a remarkably superficial argument about the world around us, and even denies his own denial about his need for aviation – how about we move on and discuss how best to encourage and educate others to a better path.”

        2. As a Kirk (legal identity unknown), amongst the millions of Kirk’s in the world, has identified that I mis-read the original article authorship, I must apologize to PriceTag readers if this mis-interpretation has caused any confusion or mis-understanding.
          And would make an interesting libel case if all Kirk’s in the world could get together and have the same view about my comments…but then they would need to prove, in public, my comments are factually inaccurate to win the day.
          ps…Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise was a childhood hero, so I really am sorry for besmirching the name of Kirk everywhere…

  8. The problem is carbon loading in the atmosphere!
    The problem is not denial, deception or who should be sued for libel!
    We are all the problem / we are all the solution.
    Little efforts are as important as big efforts.
    Please make an effort to fix the actual problem which is too much carbon loading in the atmosphere!

    1. J Olson,
      I’m so grateful and thank you for engaging on what needs to be done, rather than continuing the debate on language epistemologies.
      Your advice is exactly what is involved in education programs I lead within the global transportation industry – let’s find positive ways to change the policy and economic paradigm so that we can significantly reduce emissions. From the limited amount that I can do as an educator, just last week taught course involving industry pricing and economic regulation by the state, stressing the importance of fixing problem of externalized costs that need to be internalized, and through these methods I see country over country starting to make these policy changes – certainly not fast or broad enough, but modest progress nonetheless.
      And what about learning from Sweden, who is global leader having already achieved carbon neutral growth in aviation, but really could use further help at the EU level to go much further.
      Or encouraging countries to be the first signatories to an aviation industry specific global climate agreement that is being pushed through a United Nations mandate, and should be ready for ratification in 2016..
      None of this is sufficient as you correctly point out, but other perspectives must be accommodated too, e.g. European politicians have over two decades firmly prevented what is called the Single European Sky from coming about (despite the supposed unifying effect of the Maastricht Treaty), which in one fell swoop could reduce emissions 18-24% from current levels. I routinely rail against this lack of progress in industry/state forums, but that’s easy for me to do as I don’t have to get elected in a world with all kinds of pressing demands – btw…European emission levels may go way down this Winter if Russia decides stop the flow of Natural Gas, although we may instead see the re-start of coal/oil burning plants to replace the lost heating BTUs.
      Seriously, why has the Single Sky policy change NOT come about in Europe, well because the institutional changes needed (as the technology already in place) would result in the elimination of 40-60% jobs in the Air Traffic Control industry in Europe, easily amounting to 50,000 highly-paid employees needing to disappear overnight. Put yourself in the shoes of the Minister of Transport in any of these countries going to your cabinet, in the face of a hostile electorate within challenging economic circumstances to get this approval through. Does this hurt the climate, tragically yes, but the alternative could be a political wipe-out at the polls and a new regime arriving that is far more hostile to change as we saw in Australia with the elimination of the carbon tax recently.
      AGAIN, not making excuses here, but getting the broad political consensus to achieve lasting change can only come from education and engagement (in my humble estimation).
      Thus, the denialist debate does nothing to help a European Minister of Transport to advance the necessary technical change to achieve climate goals, and shallow industry assessments without recognizing the broader global consequences that transportation policy change can drive can make climate problems even worse.
      For example, having studied this topic, an interesting issue came up years ago about putting rarely used & permanent roads through permafrost which may actually generate more carbon than flying to remote northern destinations only when needed, but this requires willingness to study counter-intuitive perspectives and let the investigation deliver valid conclusions. Although an alternative in this case is simply force northerners to move south for the winter to avoid the need of winter transport systems, but Canada does not have a good track record with Aboriginal communities on forced relocations, so is this a path acceptable from a social justice perspective?
      Doing something to stop carbon loading in the atmosphere is necessary, but what do we say to northern Canadians about their perilous circumstances this coming Winter?
      While some may believe that attacking those who do not agree will convince them to change their minds, as an educator that approach is far from best-practice, and frankly has only the effect of creating hostility amongst those being attacked, even if their own conduct is wanting.
      As before, let’s help others understand a better way – if someone has a better approach, I’m all ears.

  9. While I agree with you in general, JOlson, I also think that Kirk has a right to be offended by what seems to me to be a very personal – and longwinded – attack. Even the “apology” is unnecessarily irksome.
    Please stick to the subject and issues, folks. Let’s not let PT descend into the usual adversarial tone of far many blogs.

  10. Frank,
    please excuse delay in responding – have been indisposed with actually contributing to global sustainability solutions – in a public way.
    Strikes me response by Kirk re “Do not be in denial over air travel”, and of course hidden by pseudonym, to suggest libel, is in my estimation an effort to defeat, mis-direct, and even silence debate through the course of action commonly known as SLAPP suits. And indeed if “Kirk” viewed his remarks to be sound, he would not hide his identity and be willing, like you and I, to put our reputations under scrutiny in our public commentary.
    And of course the Ad hominem attack by Penny that added nothing to this PT forum, but again delivered anonymously, and intended to undermine my views without providing any real contribution or effectual counter-argument.
    And I respectfully suggest not to worry about the tone of this forum as in both these cases of shoot and hide tactics, that are advanced without substance and gravitas to support their arguments and encourage debate towards solutions, then this particular forum won’t have much value in the world where we need to PUBLICLY work through the difficult process of consensus building to achieve binding and long-term trans-national agreements.
    Moreover, my favourite vacuous repose seen in many forums, including herein, that “somebody do something now”, occurs routinely without providing any meaningful suggestion of the implications, consequences, or costs/benefits towards the desired end goal. This kind of polite talk reveals nothing about the possible ways forward.
    Finally, you are correct, and I acknowledge, that a respectful tone is usually (but now always) more effective, but at the same time these complex issues cannot be summarized down to “sound bites”

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